THE FAMILY DINNER LAST JUNE 22 was one that Talia Shire approached with sadness. Such gatherings, with love and pasta doled out in equal portions, weren’t unusual at the 49-year-old actress’s sprawling hacienda-style house in the Bel Air section of L.A. “In our family,” says her brother, director Francis Ford Coppola, 56, “we all try to stand behind one another.”
On this occasion, though, Shire had a special need for support: Her husband of 14 years, movie producer Jack Schwartzman, died at 61 of pancreatic cancer exactly one year earlier. The actress, twice Oscar nominated, for 1974’s The Godfather, Part II and 1976’s Rocky, was anticipating the time with dread. Yet as the relatives reminisced, Shire says she felt a burden lifting. “It became a time to celebrate Jack’s memory rather than mourn his loss,” she explains.
Now Shire is ready to move on. “There’s a sense of the horizon,” she says. The new Shire will be on view in movie theaters—not as an actress but as a director—when One Night Stand is released this month. She makes no claims for her directorial debut, a quirky, low-budget erotic thriller starring Ally Sheedy, which Schwartzman helped guide as an executive producer. “Jack always said, ‘You don’t start out working in marble, you work in clay,’ ” she says. Still, the movie, which was shot and edited during Schwartzman’s illness, was vital to Shire on a personal level. “It was a difficult time when Jack was ill,” says the film’s producer, Alida Camp. “But she immersed herself in the film—and that kept her going.”
Shire and Schwartzman had made a good life together. Split from composer David Shire in 1978 after an eight-year marriage, Shire says she looked forward to a simple, quiet existence when she married the dynamic film exec in 1980. “I thought, ‘He’s not a musician, not an actor,’ ” recalls Shire. ” ‘Oh, boy, I’m going to get a normal life.’ ”
For a while it was. Shire, who despite her success says that she “never thought [she] had the chutzpah” to be an actress, took roles regularly. But she devoted most of her energy to rearing son Matthew Shire, now 20, and the two sons she had with Schwartzman, Jason, 15, and Robert, 12. Yet when Schwartzman read the script for One Night Stand, he convinced Shire the time had come to act on her desire to direct. To secure backing for the $1.5 million film, they collaborated with cult-movie king Roger Corman, who had given such Hollywood luminaries as Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese and Shire’s brother an early break. “She’s highly intelligent and sensitive,” says Corman, 69. “I knew she clearly could do it.”
Though she never asked for his advice or guidance, Coppola gave her encouragement. “She has intuition and humor,” he says. “And the desire.” Still, Shire says she felt fear that first day on the set in July 1993. And though she worried that having Schwartzman around would make her self-conscious, soon, she says, “I begged him to be there. You need someone on your side, and we were terrific partners.” The actors noted Schwartzman’s guardian angel-like presence. “He was very quiet,” says Sheedy. “It was important to him that this be her baby.”
During the six-week shoot, few perceived the first signs of his illness. “I noticed he kept losing weight,” says Sheedy now, “but I didn’t take it seriously.” Neither, says Shire, did Schwartzman’s doctors. One thought it was “irritable bowel syndrome,” another that it was psychosomatic. The cancer was finally spotted in November 1993, and Schwartzman began chemotherapy and radiation treatments. At first the prognosis looked hopeful, and at his insistence Shire continued postproduction work on her film. Looking back, Shire believes her husband sensed he was dying and that her continuing to work “let him know we were going to be okay. He needed to know I’d stand strong.”
By the following spring it became clear that the end was coming. Schwartzman asked to spend his last weeks at home. At the moment he died, Shire says, she was in the yard, under a tree where she and her husband had carved their initials soon after they married. Inside, Shire found relatives standing quietly around the bed and Matthew embracing his stepfather. She was transfixed by the scene. “It was like a light was there in the room,” she recalls.
Today, Shire still feels the emotional tug of that moment—and others—even as she plans new ventures for her film-development company, Schwartzman Productions. Recently she was driving past Carmine’s, the Santa Monica restaurant where she and Schwartzman had their first date. She stopped and saw that the place was being remodeled. The booth where the two had sat was gone. “I just stood there, remembering, feeling the fondness,” she says. “But you go onward. As Jack would say, ‘Okay, Tally, what’s your next project?’ ”
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles